Meet Carnegie Fellow Severine Autesserre

Continuing its longstanding investment in scholarly research, the Carnegie Corporation of New York established the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program in 2015 to provide a major boost to the social sciences and humanities. Each year, the Corporation provides more than 30 of the country’s most creative thinkers with major grants to support research on challenges to democracy and international order.

SeverineASeverine Autesserre is an Associate Professor of Political Science, specializing in international relations and African studies, at Barnard College, Columbia University (USA). Her most recent books are titled Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention (Winner of the 2016 Best Book of the Year Award, International Studies Association, and winner of the 2015 Yale H. Ferguson Award, International Studies Association – Northeast) and The Trouble with the Congo: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention (Winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order and winner of the 2011 Chadwick F. Alger Prize, International Studies Association).


How has the Carnegie Fellows Program impacted your research and overall career?

Autesserre: I am honored and grateful to have been selected as one of this year’s Carnegie Fellows. It is still too early to evaluate the full impact, as the fellowship term only started on July 1.

So far, the biggest reward of the Carnegie Fellowship is the gift of time. I am working on a new project entitled “International Peacebuilding and Local Success: Assumptions, Myths, and Reality.” The project requires extensive fieldwork in several conflict zones, which would be difficult to conduct while maintaining my normal teaching load. The Carnegie Fellowship has enabled me to transform my planned 6-month sabbatical into a two-year research leave. I am in the Democratic Republic of Congo right now, and I have a trip to Timor-Leste planned in the fall.

The fellowship also gives me the freedom to pursue other research and speaking opportunities. For instance, I regularly receive invitations to peacebuilding events that would be tremendously useful to my research. In the past, I had to decline most of these requests because they conflicted with my scheduled classes in New York. Now I can say yes, even if it is a last-minute invitation to a meeting on the other side of the world. Being able to attend these events will greatly enhance the quality of my research findings.

What topics in research do you primarily focus on?

Autesserre: My work centers around war and peace. I am especially interested in understanding how to stop mass violence. I have so far concentrated on international interventions in civil wars, focusing on two overarching questions: Why are international peacebuilding interventions so often ineffective at ending violence? Conversely, why do some initiatives succeed?

Most experts answer these questions by using a top-down approach that focuses on headquarters and capital cities, as well as on the dynamics of peacebuilding at the national and international levels. My research offers a different perspective; I use a bottom-up approach that centers on the local dynamics of violence and peacebuilding. I also conduct extensive fieldwork, primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo (theater of the deadliest conflict since World War Two), as well as several other conflict zones.

The main contributions of my two books and a dozen scholarly articles have been to analyze (1) how international peacebuilders tackle (or ignore) grassroots conflicts and (2) how the everyday practices of interveners shape peacebuilding effectiveness. In so doing, I have considered several previously unanswered puzzles, including (1) why international peacebuilders can build peace at the national and international levels, but not at the local level, and (2) why interveners perpetuate modes of operation that they know to be ineffective or counter-productive.

I am currently working on a project that examines successful international contributions to local and bottom-up peacebuilding. My 2014 article in International Peacekeeping presents some of the early ideas for this research, and I have a paper under review that summarizes some of my preliminary findings.

How can people access your work?

Autesserre: The best starting point is my personal webpage. I try to post everything that matters – research papers, information about my books Peaceland and The Trouble with the Congo, along with links to media pieces and upcoming events. I also strive to make my work as accessible as possible thanks to Columbia Academic Commons, which provides free access to all of my scholarly articles as soon as authorized by copyright law. Readers can also follow me on Twitter at @SeverineAR and Facebook.

What would be one piece of advice you would give aspiring social science and humanities students?

Autesserre: Pursue research on a topic that you are genuinely interested in, and search for the right methods to answer your research questions. Don’t get sidetracked by the “hot” topics and “cutting-edge” methods in your field. Chances are, by the time you graduate, something else will be the new hot topic or cutting-edge method.

Read more here about Severine Autesserre’s work.